Thoughts on Cameras

Returning to film with a fun, compact, affordable and easy to use Nikon FE – By Daniel Sigg

Nikon FE SLR film camera

My father was a documentary photographer and shot a Leica in the 1950s and 60s. He photographed my brother and me all the time when we were growing up in Switzerland, mainly with his Minolta SLRs (in the mid-to-late 60s and 70s, yes I am dating myself!). I learned the craft of photography as a young teenager (including some darkroom skills), and my first camera was a Yashica SLR (I don’t remember the model!). Fast forward many years, and I have been shooting Nikon digital SLR and Nikon mirrorless cameras professionally and for many personal projects.

More recently, I became intrigued by the artistic possibilities of film and by the entire creative process surrounding this medium. Given I was already using Nikon lenses, Nikon SLRs made sense and so I decided to purchase a Nikon FE. The Nikon FE’s spartan simplicity, size, and it’s clean aesthetic (in particular in black!) attracted me. Plus I love the fact that the camera model is not displayed on the front of the camera. But it is the camera’s usability that won me over.

The Nikon FE body is very light, and very compact. Next to my D850 with macro lens (my negative film scanning setup), the FE with the 50mm looks tiny. The FE is very well built, and has a reputation for being very reliable. I have been pairing the FE with a Nikkor 50mm 1:2 (f/2) AI lens. Those two seem to be a perfect match: both are (somewhat) underrated, lightweight, compact, solidly built, easy to use and very affordable (camera around $80-125 depending on condition, lens $60-80, in US-$). And I love the ability to focus as close as 45cm with this 50mm lens.

The usability of this camera is superb. The film-advance doubles as meter on/off switch and shutter release button lock (so battery depletion and accidental in pocket shutter releases are largely prevented). The camera can be shot in M90 shutter priority mode without light meter/functional battery. The camera has aperture priority mode (auto), and AE lock. And I love the super-responsive analog needle-based light meter.

One thing that I decided to upgrade is the focusing screen (to a K3 model). Thankfully those are readily available on eBay, affordable (depending on model and new/used between US-$20-40) and easy to change yourself (I ordered it, but have not received it at the time of this writing). I tend to shoot wide open more often than not, so this additional focusing aid will be appreciated.

Most of the shots shared here were captured with the Nikkor 50mm f2 AI lens: there were a few with a 28mm 2.8 AI (close focus 20cm!) as well as a Nikkor 50mm 1.8 (pancake lens, I just purchased that one, also great, even smaller/lighter, but doesn’t focus as closely, only 60cm).

This first set of color photos are from my 2nd film with this camera, a Kodak Portra 400 developed by a local lab in Minneapolis. The nature pictures are from the Lake Superior North Shore in Northern Minnesota (close to Canada). The autumn colors just have started to peak. My wife Amy and I love spend a lot of time at the North Shore and we love immersing ourselves in this beautiful and vast nature on long hikes.

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Autumn birch Portra 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Fall colors in Minnesota (Nikon FE, 50mm f/2 AI lens & Portra 400)

Autumn fall leaf Portra 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Fall colors in Northern Minnesota

leaf Portra 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Leaf (Northern Minnesota)

Maple Autumn leaf Portra 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Fall colors in Northern Minnesota

Sunset Lake Superior leaf Portra 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Northern Minnesota, Lake Superior North Shore sunset scene

Lake Superior waves

My third and fourth rolls of film were a roll Kodak TriX 400 and Ultrafine Xtreme 400 B&W respectively. The latter I bulk-loaded myself and might keep doing this given the results compared to TriX.

I developed these rolls myself using Cinestill Df96 (still learning, and there were some hiccups along the way!). I scanned the negatives with a Nikon D850 with a 105mm 2.8 macro lens. I imported the scanned raw files into Adobe Lightroom and converted/edited them using Negative Lab Pro. The still life (and the train track image) were captured in Saint Paul, MN.

FE Nikon with 28mm lens ultrafine 400 lake superior shore and waves

More Lake Superior waves (this was taken with a 28mm 2.8 lens, Ultrafine Xtreme 400)

saint paul minnesota trix 400 train tracks ultrafine 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Train tracks in Saint Paul, MN, in the rain: I thought I juxtapose this to the picture below as I do spend quite a bit of time in urban areas as well 😉 (TriX 400)

wooden bridge ultrafine 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Northern Minnesota hiking scene (Ultrafine Xtreme 400)

leaf ultrafine 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Northern Minnesota: autumn scene (Ultrafine Xtreme 400)

leaf ultrafine 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Northern Minnesota: Lichen on tree branches (Ultrafine Xtreme 400)

leaf TriX 400 Nikon FE Daniel Sigg Photography

Northern Minnesota: autumn scene (Ultrafine Xtreme 400)

Still life / shadow play (TriX 400)

Shadow play (TriX 400)

Kitchen still life (TriX 400)

This is just a test image: I tested the flash of the FE (with a Profoto A1) and metered using a light meter, bounced it off ceiling. (Flash sync speed is 1/125 which is not too bad!). (TriX 400)

The FE is a great every day, travel/hiking and even street photography (for some great examples of the latter, see 35mmc post by Thorsten Wulff). I highly recommend the Nikon FE to anybody who is interested in getting into film photography with a fun, compact, affordable, easy to use SLR. The huge selection of high quality yet affordable F-mount Nikon lenses are a big part of this recommendation.

Thanks for reading!

You can see more of my work on Instagram as well as on my website. I always like to connect with other photographers, so please send me a note via Instagram or website and I’d be happy to respond.

PS: I do admit suffering from GAS, hopefully not the delusional one! And I did order a Nikon FM3a as well. I can’t wait to compare it to the FE and my digital Nikons!

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29 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ilya Inov
    November 26, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    Beautiful photos and a very nice write-up. Thank you for sharing! I also have a Nikon FE (and FE2) and love these cameras. A few years ago I got into film remembering seeing my grandfather take lots of family photos when I was very little, and his home BW development in a darkened room as I sat beside him and watched. I like the FE’s simplicity and reliability. The light meter with needles is amazing because it’s very easy to understand and has a huge range. I can scan the scene and see how many stops are the highlights away from the shadows without even looking at the numbers. Nikon FE also has a hidden talent for night photography: the light meter works in nearly total darkness when you can no longer see the needles at all. It still measures the amount of light coming in and sets the exposure accordingly. To compensate for reciprocity failure I like to adjust the ISO about 2-3 stops slower, and just let the camera do the rest. I’ve taken some moonlit landscapes and starry sky photos this way when the FE took about 10-15 minutes to capture the image just based on its automatic light meter reading, and the results were great! I would recommend this camera to anyone, especially anyone who already has Nikon lenses. My favourite lens is the old 24mm 2.8. Thanks again for sharing your photos!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 26, 2019 at 12:37 pm

      Thanks for your kind and very insightful comments. I do love night photography as well, and will have to try to use this camera at some point! Also thanks for sharing your favorite lens! I love the 24mm focal length as well, in particular landscapes, but don’t own a manual focus F-mount at the moment (I own the 28mm 2.8).

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ed
    November 26, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    The FE is indeed a wonderful starting point for film and the AI Nikkors are built to Leica durability and specs. Two suggestions; the FM2 though fully manual offers LED meter display and becomes far easier to read in the dark. Also recommended are the various Voigtländer SL lenses for Nikon. Newer optics + coatings and just as solid as the Nikkors.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Lee
    November 26, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    It’s hard to argue with the Nikon FE/FE2. Of all the cameras I own, the one I will never get rid of is my FE2. The form factor is fabulous, everything is very intuitive and the controls have such a positive feel. I do appreciate the 1/4000 max shutter speed of the FE2 and the 1/250 flash sync speed is handy as well. I also love the match needle metering display, but it can be tricky to see in low light. I have taken more shots with my FE2 than any other film camera I own. It’s a complete joy.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 26, 2019 at 5:22 pm

      Thanks, Lee, for your comments and also contrasting the FE with the FE2. Totally agree on the needle display visibility issue in low light. And it’s indeed a joy to shoot … it just doesn’t get in the way!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Clive W
      November 27, 2019 at 10:39 am

      Lee can probably confirm this but I think the FE2 offers a kind of way around the low-light problem. When you engage the AE lock, the meter needle freezes at the locked speed, so you can point the camera at something brighter to see what it’s selected, then either hold the lock or set a speed manually before going back. The FE can’t do this, as the speed is locked but the needle goes on swinging. For the pictures I take, this is actually a greater step forward than either the 1/4000 shutter or the faster flash sync.

      I bought an FM2N for these situations, because of its LED meter display, but I’m struggling to bond with it. The FE just does everything else so well – and perhaps I’m just not the natural hair-shirt manual-everything type.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Daniel Sigg
        November 27, 2019 at 1:33 pm

        Thanks, Clive, for your insightful comments. I did purchase a F3 as my 2nd Nikon SLR, but could not get used to the digital LED meter and returned it, and bought a FM3a instead (also needle based light meter which I love and much prefer). To me having a needle based light meter was overall much more important than the visibility issue. Plus, while I do shoot all manual with many of my other cameras, I tend to shoot the FE and FM3a often in aperture priority AUTO mode 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Charles Morgan
    November 26, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    Lovely photos. To be honest, the FE is my favourite of the Nikon manual SLRs as it has highly reliable metering, excellent match needle display rather than the limited displays in the FM2n. At a pinch I’d like faster shutter speeds for wide open, but the price for the camera is excellent and as you say offers a way in to excellent Nikon glass. A great film camera for beginners and longstanding alike!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 26, 2019 at 5:24 pm

      Thanks, Charles, for your comments! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    bwf
    November 26, 2019 at 7:37 pm

    Great article and photos! I always find myself surprised how much I like Ultrafine Xtreme 400 when I’m looking back through photos. I feel like it should not be that good for that price, but am glad it is!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 12:28 am

      Thanks so much! And I totally agree with you on the Ultrafine 400 Xtreme! 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David Cuttler
    November 26, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    Nice images, especially the candle. You have a good eye.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 12:23 am

      Thanks for the kind comments, David. Much appreciated.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Teddy
    November 27, 2019 at 1:43 am

    Lovely stuff! I’ve found the Nikon 50mm f/2 to be an absolute gem of a lens. The images it produces wide open are just lovely.

    After having used an Nikon FM and then an F3, I’m afraid you’re going to love the F3. 🙂 It might not be the lightest or have the biggest viewfinder, but it’s gotta be the most enjoyable SLR I’ve ever used. Plus the film advance is oh so smooth.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 2:32 am

      Thanks, Teddy, for your comments! 🙂 The 50mm f/2 is a gem indeed. I was going to buy a F3, but ended up buying a FM3a as my secondary film SLR (actually Hamish recommended that one to me!) 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Andrew B
    November 27, 2019 at 2:16 am

    Really nice shots! Nikon FEs and their cousins FE2s and FMs do so much so well in such small solid packages.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 2:37 am

      Thanks, Andrew! 🙂 I’ve been really impressed with the FE, I can imagine that the FE2 and FM are very similar.

  • Castelli Daniel
    Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    November 27, 2019 at 4:34 am

    Nice article & nice pics illustrating your work. I have the FE’s little brother: an FE2. I use a 55mm f/2.8 micro-Nikkor on it. This is my ‘technical’ camera. You could ‘shoot the world’ with this camera! It lacks nothing. Reliable, light, lots of accessories available.
    A working classic.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks for your comments! I am glad you like the FE2! How do you like the 55mm 2.8? I love macro lenses, they seem often under-appreciated for their versatility.

      • Daniel Castelli
        Reply
        Daniel Castelli
        November 27, 2019 at 6:18 pm

        I have always been fascinated by small worlds. I use the micro-Nikkor in a non-traditional role: black & white film, and little nature photography. I shot a whole series of pasta shapes up close (hey, what can I say? I’m Italian-American!). I shoot machinery & tools, etc. I’m starting to work on a series of ‘sharps’ – knife edges, etc. It’s for this reason I call the kit a ‘technical’ camera.
        My regular walk around camera is a old M2 fitted with a 40mm Rokkor lens. I just photograph things that catch my eye. Not really street photography, but human activity. [flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574/]

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Daniel Sigg
          November 27, 2019 at 6:45 pm

          Great images, thanks for sharing!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Benny B
    November 27, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    Great insight and photos. My first film camera I bought is the FE, which I still have and enjoy shooting with. I also ended up getting the FM3A and what a lovely camera, I love the shutter sound and the feel of the advance lever, I can’t wait to read your insight on it and comparing to the FE.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 27, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Benny! We have the same cameras 🙂 Like you, I tend to prefer the shutter sound of the FM3a and the advance lever. I haven’t shot with it as much as I am waiting for a K3 focusing screen to arrive (I upgraded my FE with the K3, and plan to do the same with the FM3a). Personally, the 1/4000 shutter versus 1/1000 is not a huge issue for me although I like using shallow depth of field artistically, but getting it close often helps (or using a longer lens)! The AE function of the FM3a is nice, and I also like how the exposure compensation seems easier to use. Hamish actually recommended the FM3a to me when I was writing the FE post 😉 To me, thus far, the cameras are very similar, and if you are on a budget, I’d go for the FE. Do you have a preference between the two?

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Benny B
        November 27, 2019 at 10:15 pm

        They are very similar indeed and I would also highly recommend the FE if on a budget. But I was looking for a fully mechanical Nikon SLR and I thought why not go with their final one with the very unique ability of AE mode (it was also a grail camera for me). I haven’t thought about changing the focusing screen, does it make that much of a difference and are there any drawbacks? I prefer my FM3A as my FE has the mirror hang issue, so I’m not confident about the timing of the shutter release.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Daniel Sigg
          November 28, 2019 at 2:00 am

          I don’t think there are any drawbacks on changing focusing screens on the FE or FM3a, and it’s fairly easy to do as a user with the tool that comes with a new one. For me the main reason was to have a split prism in both the FE and the FM3a (I think the FM3a is supposed to have a K3 split prism screen natively, but mine didn’t).

          Oh, and something I may have not mentioned, the FE does have a AE mode as well, but it doesn’t lock the needle / light meter position (but will lock the exposure): this is explained here.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Tom Aspin
    November 27, 2019 at 9:15 pm

    The FE gas proven to be a great starter camera for my teenage daughter, nice and small, and not too intimidating, with only focusing and framing to worry about. The FE2 has some nice improvements, and the higher shutter speeds are handy when using fast glass in good light. I have one ready and waiting for when she’s ready.
    The 50 f2 Nikkor just delivers great rendering – I have several including an old Nikkor H on my old F, definitely one of my favourites.
    I have to complement you on your images – they remind me of all the reasons why I still go out and shoot film

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Daniel Sigg
      November 28, 2019 at 2:07 am

      Tom, thanks for the kind comments! They are just such great cameras and I am glad you like the 50 f2 as well! And great to hear that the FE has been a great starter camera for your daughter!

  • Reply
    Guest Post on 35mm Blog: Returning to Film with a fun, compact, affordable and easy to use Nikon FE | Sigg Photography
    December 6, 2019 at 4:56 pm

    […] for the 35mm blog by Hamish Gill. It is a very active blog with daily contributions. Here is the link to one I recently published. Hope you like it […]

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